The first trailer for Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s second film as a director, has been released and it has Oscar Bait stamped all over it: Sweeping music, dazzling visuals, a story about a scrappy survivor, World War II, and a family-friendly Christmas release date. If Unbroken is even half as good as advertised, it’s a shoo-in for nominations next year. There are parts of it that are a little eye roll-y, but I can’t tell if that’s because there is legit schmaltz happening or I’m just so cynical that I can’t watch someone being repeatedly knocked down and getting back up without rolling my eyes.
Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic runner, war hero and a badass of the first order. He lived the kind of life that seems impossible now—college track star and Olympic athlete, World War II Air Force bombardier who survived 47 days in shark-infested waters after a plane crash only to end up in a Japanese POW camp…and any one of those elements would make for a good movie. Zamperini’s life story seems engineered to be a schmaltzy “you can do it” hero’s journey, but all this stuff actually happened to him. I would cry and not get out of bed if faced with even half of half of half challenges he dealt with.
The other side of this, of course, is Angelina. This is her second film but her first major release, and it’s poised in prime Oscar territory. There’s pressure, and a lingering question about what kind of filmmaker she’ll be. Her first film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, isn’t bad, but it’s not great either, though I was fairly impressed with Angelina’s sense of direction. She didn’t indulge in fancy-dancy camera tricks that first-time directors often use to prove that they know how to move a camera, and she has a nice sense of framing and shot composition.
That sensibility—her directorial “eye”—is on display in the Unbroken trailer. Roger Deakins, one of the best working cinematographers, is lensing Unbroken, and certainly the use of practical light sources and the tendency to frame shots-within-shots (check out the microphones highlighting the negative space between Zamperini and a Japanese radio announcer in the radio booth) is all him, but Angelina seems to have an instinct for the visual language of storytelling.
There’s a propulsive sense of energy, particularly in the way she moves the camera into action, like pushing into the water rushing into the plane as it crashes, that heightens tension in a scene and makes for more engaging, active viewing for the audience. There are several instances of the camera tracking actors from behind or beside at eye level, which makes us feel as if we’re walking along with them, putting us into the action. That takes some director confidence to pull off, because it often means going for tighter, “smaller” shots instead of indulging in wide shots packed to the gills with stuff, trying to impress people with the sheer volume of crap you can fit into frame (I’m looking at you, George Lucas). The era of Angelina Jolie, Filmmaker is upon us.